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No school to improve education

© Nadia Mounier

No school to improve education

Young Egyptian Mostafa Magdi transformed his grandfather's old house into a school that opens its doors to children for a different way of learning.

"Let's not distract each other…we have to learn and work hard… not annoy each other" and finally "a student once bitten is twice shy". These short words, requesting composure and recognizing the value of knowledge, are printed on wooden panels in a house in Saft El-Laban, Giza. The house is owned by a notable family that enjoys the respect of neighboring families. One of the family’s sons turned it into a classroom to teach the children in his neighborhood using innovative methods.

The revolutionary mood that overcame Egyptians in January 2011, the aspiration for change and the dream of a better future inspired Mostafa Magdi, 24, who currently works at a management consulting firm, together with two friends, Abdelaziz and Hazem, to offer a new form of teaching to fix the shortcomings of public education.

Believing that revolutionary change is not only about political action or marching in demonstrations and chanting, the three wish to contain the problems locally, for instance in Saft El-Laban. The state of public education is horrendous, they say. Private tutoring is accepted as normal by the parents, though it constitutes a heavy burden on many families who cannot bear the increasingly high costs. Out of 140 countries around the world, Egypt, according to a report by the World Economic Forum, comes second to last in terms of education, followed by Guinea.

Not a traditional school

The poor state of Egyptian public education impelled the three young men to launch the non-governmental organization Mish Madrasa (“not a school”). As of February 2014, the school is open three days per week to primary students in the neighborhood, offering five subjects, among them social science, English and Arabic.

The young men use social media sites, especially Facebook, to spread the idea and get help and assistance from Egyptians and foreigners. Volunteer work is the cornerstone of Mish Madrasa. "We depend on the donations and contributions of the founders; we dream that our experiment will inspire the residents of other neighborhoods like Saft El-Laban", says Mostafa.

  • Mostafa Wafaa, founder of the alternative education center Mish Madrasa, is preparing classes at home. © Nadia Mounier

  • Mostafa in the building in which the Mish Madrasa classes are held. It used to be his grandfather’s house. © Nadia Mounier

  • Mish Madrasa is situated in the neighbourhood of Saft el-Laban in Giza, Egypt’s third biggest city located southwest of Cairo. Giza and Cairo together form a metropolitan region with about 20 million inhabitants. © Nadia Mounier

  • Mostafa’s fourth grandfather, who was the Omda (community leader) of Saft el-Laban, used to live here and receive guests in the room that now serves as a classroom. Saft el-Laban used to be a village before it was swallowed by ever-growing Giza and Cairo. © Nadia Mounier

  • People from the neighborhood donate books in order to help the informal school in building up a library. © Nadia Mounier

  • A zoology class at Mish Madrasa. © Nadia Mounier

  • Learning about geography in a playful way. © Nadia Mounier

  • The students enjoy studying at Mish Madrasa, because it gives them a space to express themselves freely. © Nadia Mounier

  • Students of Mish Madrasa in a street in their neighbourhood Saft el-Laban. © Nadia Mounier

  • Mostafa and the students of Mish Madrasa on the way to an activity day. © Nadia Mounier

  • Mish Madrasa’s activity day at a football pitch in Saft el-Laban. © Nadia Mounier

  • Activity days are an important part of Mish Madrasa’s work, they enable the students to broaden their horizon. © Nadia Mounier

  • One of the students proudly presents his school report. (He is excellent in all subjects.) © Nadia Mounier

  • Football is a common and cheap sport for children and youth living in the periphery of Cairo and Giza. Local people often turn their land into football pitches and rent it by the hour. The rural origins of Saft el-Laban are still obvious. © Nadia Mounier

"We want our name to be reflected in our initiative through action and not to just become a conventional school.”, Mostafa says. “What is most important to us is to become part of the solution to the education problem."

The founders of Mish Madrasa developed some alternative curricula, in addition to revising the public curricula. For example, social science subjects (history and geography) are presented at Mish Madrasa in the form of theatre plays.

The Mayor

Despite initial objections from his mother, Mostafa was able to turn the reception room that goes back to his fourth greatgrandfather, the former mayor, into a classroom. At the moment, Mostafa is trying to expand the place to accommodate a larger number of primary students, as well as secondary students. There are a number of leather chairs in the room, a sofa, chairs and a big wooden table. On the table there are some books and on the wall hang different maps of the world, the Arabic and English alphabet and a human skeleton.

Here, the children can freely express their opinions. They hear from the Mish Madrasa teachers about values and principles which they try to instill in their hearts and minds for the sake of building a better future. Mish Madrasa offers the children of Saft El-Laban the opportunity to draw, color, listen to music, sing and express themselves in general. At public schools, with classrooms overflowing with pupils, this is not possible.

There are 1.7 million pupils in 2833 school in the Giza governorate, according to statistics by the Ministry of Education for 2015. The minister for pre-university education has announced that in 2016 the ministry intends to reduce the number of pupils per classroom to 40.

Education aside, Mostafa feels proud and happy when he sees the impact on his pupils. "I saw Amir, one of the Mish Madrasa pupils, advise his older brother to stop catcalling girls as they pass by because this is shameful behavior", he recounts with a bright smile. Promoting social skills is more important at Mish Madrasa than the transfer of knowledge alone.

Three Naughty Kids

Of three children who are not afraid of strangers, one is also called Mostafa. He tells me that he joined Mish Madrasa as he wants to learn and receive an opportunity to express himself.

Commenting on his school in Saft El-Laban, he says: "I like it better here than at public school, where teachers treat us badly. They let the pupils beat each other up without interfering. I hate the English teacher; he beats me and others in a way I hate."

Mostafa feels safe at Mish Madrasa. Here he plays football and sings with his peers. His feeling of security increases in his tone of voice when talking about Uncle Mansour, who owns the garage next to the school and, in his words, treats them as children, plays with them and is kind.

With child-like bashfulness, Youssef explains why he joined Mish Madrasa: "The teaching methods are better than at public schools. There, we are punished by beating when we make mistakes; sometimes we are even kicked." The National Council for Motherhood and Childhood monitored 289 cases of violence against children in educational institutions during 2013 and 2014, while 156 cases of violence and violations of children's rights were recorded in 2013. The parents of children attending Mish Madrasa refused to give interviews. They fear being portrayed as poor for accepting free services – a position shown in different programs on Egyptian TV. In the difficult question of funding, a sustainable solution has been found: Zakat money, a tax paid by Muslims for charity according to the rules of Islam. Mostafa collects the Zakat from the five biggest families in the area. He has convinced them of his idea, which he considers an important step in improving education and culture in Egypt, particularly in poor, marginalized areas.


    March 2016
    Egypt, Giza, Saft el-Laban

    Mish Madrasa


    Nahed Samir
    has been working as a freelance journalist for thenewspapers Dustur, Egypt Independent and El-Watan, for Radio Arabesk and for DotMasr. Currently she is a correspondent for HuffpostArabi.


    Isis Hakim





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